Budding chemistry between Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander sparks Thunder win

Budding chemistry between Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander sparks Thunder win

It wasn’t just Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s 40 points Saturday or Chet Holmgren’s 36. It was the way the Thunder’s star vet and rising rookie played off one another to get there.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 19, 2023, 7:58am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 19, 2023, 7:58am CST

SAN FRANCISCO — If he’s not the coolest cat in the NBA, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the shortlist. The Thunder star’s style is cool. His voice. His game. 

And his demeanor, almost unfailingly, is cool. 

So for that dude to drop his jaw and stare? You had to do something.

Oklahoma City teammate Chet Holmgren had done that sort of something Saturday, a twisting turnaround 3-pointer that swished at the regulation buzzer and sent the Thunder and Warriors into overtime, where OKC would win 130-123. 

It was a shot so shocking that even Gilgeous-Alexander — mouth open, eyes wide — couldn’t keep his cool. 

“Disbelief,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of his reaction. “It just seemed crazy. It felt like a movie in the moment.”

If Saturday was any indication, he and Holmgren could be making pictures together — and dropping jaws — for some time to come. 

Gilgeous-Alexander dominated the second half and overtime as part of a 40-point, seven-rebound, six-assist night. Holmgren helped get him to the extra period with a career-high 36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. 

But what jumped out Saturday wasn’t just their big nights. 

It was the way Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren played off each other to get them, an important step in maximizing the OKC offense.

Five of Gilgeous-Alexander’s six assists were on passes to Holmgren. Three of Holmgren’s five were on passes to Gilgeous-Alexander. 

The Thunder talked in practice Friday, coach Mark Daigneault said, about looking more for Holmgren when a defense switches on him, about getting him the ball even when he’s covered, if it’s by a smaller man. 

The plan was to throw the ball up to Holmgren and give him chances to score one-on-one or force help defense and allow Holmgren to find the open man as a result. 

That probably accounted for some of the Gilgeous-Alexander-Holmgren synergy Saturday. But there’s also a growing connection between the two players, more visible against the Warriors than in any game this season. 

“With all this stuff, there’s never an epiphany game or an epiphany moment,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “It just builds over time. So their chemistry in the two-man game is better than it was at the beginning of the year, and hopefully it’s better a week from now than it is today.”

That chemistry has been “easy,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, because of Holmgren’s versatility. He listed off the options Holmgren presents — catching a lob, shooting a 3-pointer or a floater, driving from the 3-point line — and said “it’s really just about me, when I draw a crowd and draw attention, finding him when he’s open.”

He did that against the Warriors. 

There was the second-quarter play when the Warriors’ Chris Paul harassed Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevon Looney helped on a cutting Lu Dort, leaving a pass to Holmgren for a dunk. 

And the one in the fourth, when Gilgeous-Alexander drove by rookie Brandin Podziemski, drew help from Looney and found a cutting Holmgren for a dunk that broke a 98-98 tie. 

But the connection worked both ways. 

On one fourth-quarter play, Holmgren brought the ball upcourt and was picked up defensively by the Warriors’ Klay Thompson. That left Looney on Gilgeous-Alexander at the top of the key, and Holmgren hit him for a stepback 3-pointer. 

The Thunder needed all it got from that duo. 

The loss was the Warriors’ sixth straight, and they came out like a team hell-bent on avoiding it. With Stephen Curry back in the lineup — he missed OKC’s win here Thursday with a knee sprain — Golden State led by 10 at halftime and by 18 with 6:18 to play in the third quarter. 

There were contributions from all over the roster to get OKC back in the game. Isaiah Joe had five timely points in the final minute of the third quarter. Jalen Williams carried the offense to start the fourth and finished with 10 of his 22 points in that quarter. 

But the game-changing stretch — a 22-6 run to close the third quarter — featured a combined 17 points from Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren. 

And each had a signature moment to clinch the win. 

Holmgren’s came with 1.6 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.

The rookie had botched some plays leading up to the final moments. He had, in his words, “smoked” a left-handed layup, missing at the rim on a feed from Williams. He’d closed out late to Curry on a 3-pointer with 4:02 to play that pulled the Warriors within three, then committed the turnover that led to Paul’s 3-pointer at the 2:54 mark that put Golden State ahead 111-110. 

But Daigneault went to him with the game on the line, an inbound play the Thunder has run repeatedly at the end of practices, Williams said, when it works on late-game after-timeout scenarios. 

The Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins didn’t foul, but did contest — “I tried, but he is tall,” Wiggins said later — and Holmgren took an inbound from Josh Giddey, turned, faded and swished a shot that he said “felt good coming out of my hands.” 

The play looked the way the Thunder wanted it to, Daigneault said, “especially the part of the ball going in.”

That was the shot that left Gilgeous-Alexander stunned, but he had a jaw-dropper or two left for overtime. 

On a night when he scored 32 points after halftime, Gilgeous-Alexander saved his signature stretch for last. 

With 1:11 to play in overtime, he buried a 16-foot fadeaway. Ten seconds later, he swatted a Curry 3-pointer that would have tied the game, got the loose ball from Lu Dort and coasted in to finish a layup over Paul that put the Thunder in front 128-123 with 56 seconds remaining. 

Holmgren in regulation and Gilgeous-Alexander in overtime made the tide-turning plays to cap a game that “just didn’t feel like it was going our way for a lot of it” Daigneault said. 

And though that duo provided a fitting finish, the chemistry they showed Saturday is only beginning. 

“One-hundred percent,” Holmgren said. “It just comes down to playing off each other and reading what the other team’s trying to do and trying to take advantage of that.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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